Alien Encounters: On Writing Sentient Beings Beyond

Millions of people have stared into the night sky and asked, are we alone? Arthur C. Clarke has said, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” But if we are not alone, what will we find? There are thousands of science fiction and science fantasy stories that have their own answers.

What comes to your mind when you think “alien,” apart from H. R. Giger? Or rather, this might be the right place to start. Looking at the original design, they are the nightmare chimera of reptile, insect, robot, and human. Alien, is a science fiction story, but it’s also survival horror with an alien that is as far from human as we can imagine. This is done with the purpose to instill fear in the viewer, and so the design of the alien itself sets the narrative.

Ted Chiang’s, Story Of Your Life, and its movie adaptation Arrival, is a narrative about communication and choice and bridging the gap of communication with an alien that doesn’t have a face, or speak, or write, or understand time like we do. Hexapods of the story are closer to Earth’s cephalopods of the deep sea in design with a voice that sounds as far removed from our idea of communication as possible. By removing the human elements of communication and emotional understanding it creates a compelling narrative that is shrouded in mystery.

When writing aliens in general they should fit an aspect of your narrative. For example, you have an alien that looks terrifying, yet it acts benevolently or emotionally. This can be used as a tool to talk about the human condition of our fear of the unknown or what we don’t recognize. Despite text being a much less visual-intensive medium than film, this is Narrative 101 for writing science fiction. Before you can focus on the alien, you should decide the direction of your narrative.

As you describe their appearance, characters will inevitably interact with your aliens. How an alien reacts to a human may be the most telling thing of all. Their mannerisms may be different or similar depending on the story. In invasion stories often an alien will disguise themselves as a human, but the audience will often see the tells of their nature and reach the Uncanny Valley where they recognize the character as human, but also not. Imagine placing those actions onto a nonhuman body, and the effect is no longer as unsettling, but undoubtedly alien.

But what if this is a story inhabited by many aliens? How do we set them apart? For this, write a scene with one of each alien representing their species. What do they look like in comparison to the alien next to them? How do they interact with each other? How do they speak? Does one species speak in a very sterilized tone while the other is very animated when they speak? Each species should have some distinct characteristics that make them recognizable on the page apart from their physical appearance. We would be aliens to an alien, bizarre and different from what they know.

One important note to come to terms with now is that you will write from an Earth-centric perspective. Yes, you are writing aliens, but we have (as of right now) not experienced alien contact. Our language is driven by the world we live in. Even so, you can still try to console this issue. When writing keep in mind where the aliens live. Would they call dirt “earth” when they have never been to Earth? Do they have a different understanding of what “sky blue” is? Know your alien species well, their biology, culture, and history and how they would use their experiences in the language they speak.

But at the same time, it’s important to strike a balance so that the audience is immersed in the world the alien is. You don’t need to develop fifteen conlangs to create realistic aliens. Make sure the reader understands the alien world. Immerse the reader in the world they inhabit, have your aliens come across what is strange to them, something as common today as a pencil or even a leaf. The mundane can be unusual to someone who has never stepped on Earth, just as we are fascinated with the strangeness of the galaxy.

However you write your aliens and tell your story, it’s important to study the narratives that you love. This is a rule for every genre, but when writing aliens examine how other people have written and/or designed the aliens of their story.

This isn’t restricted to novels; science fiction has been made into wonderful movies, games, audio drama, and other mixed media for audiences to experience. Look at others reviews, their critiques, and experiences with these stories that they love or hate. Both are a result of a passion for science fiction and for the unknown.

Maybe one day we will find life beyond our world, but for now, the possibilities are only limited by our own understanding of the universe: ever expanding, and changing.